Category: King County

Calls for King County Sheriff Resignation Expand Beyond County Council

Sheriff JohanknechtBy Paul Kiefer

County and state lawmakers continue to join the chorus calling for King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht to resign for comments she made in a department-wide email about the killing of 20-year-old Tommy Le by a sheriff’s deputy in Burien in 2017. On Thursday, state senator Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) became the latest elected official to add his voice, joining three county council members.

Johanknecht sent the email at the heart of lawmakers’ criticisms only hours after a March 24 press conference at which Le’s family announced a $5 million settlement with King County for their son’s death. The email’s contents were first reported by the South Seattle Emerald.

In the department-wide email, Johanknecht shared her “appreciation of the difficulty” of Deputy Cesar Molina’s decision to shoot and kill Le, who was unarmed. Johanknecht also wrote that the county’s settlement with Le’s family—which implied some admission of wrongdoing by her department—was “not a reflection of how [Johanknecht] view[s] the actions of Deputy Molina in this incident.”

In a statement on March 26, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott said that the sheriff’s email “was, in the most charitable light one might muster, disrespectful to the young person who was killed, to his family and our entire community.”

Both Le’s shooting and the internal investigation into his death have sparked scrutiny by police accountability advocates and lawmakers. A critical review of the investigation by the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight in September 2020 identified an array of flaws in the internal review into Le’s death, which an internal review board determined to be justified in 2018. Those flaws included the internal investigators’ failure to note that two of the six shots that Molina fired hit Le in the back, contradicting Molina’s assertion that he fired at Le in self-defense. Though Johanknecht was not sheriff at the time of Le’s death, she assumed leadership of the department during the investigation into the incident.

The publication of Johanknecht’s email spurred King County Councilmember Joe McDermott to join Le’s family in calling for the sheriff’s resignation; in a statement on March 26, McDermott said that the email “was, in the most charitable light one might muster, disrespectful to the young person who was killed, to his family and our entire community.”

Johanknecht maintains that she has no plans to resign, but as the county’s transition from an elected sheriff to an appointed sheriff in 2022 looms on the horizon, her future with the department may be limited.

McDermott’s call for Johanknecht’s resignation was preceded by that of County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who quietly expressed his opposition to Johanknecht in a March 12 Facebook post in which he shared his support for relatives of Black victims of police shootings in King County and called for Johanknecht to step down for “her failure to treat racism with the seriousness it requires.”

On Wednesday, Councilmember Girmay Zahilay became the third council member to call for Johanknecht’s resignation. In a series of tweets, Zahilay wrote that a sheriff’s comments were evidence that she presents a barrier to police accountability and “do not reflect the values we need in that office.” Sen. Nguyen, who voiced his support for Johanknecht’s resignation on Twitter a day later, called the email “dehumanizing, disrespectful [and] dismissive.” Continue reading “Calls for King County Sheriff Resignation Expand Beyond County Council”

Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil

1. The Seattle Public Library spent nearly $40,000 installing slanted steel sculptural grate covers above the grates outside its Ballard library branch to prevent unsheltered people from sleeping there. The grates open onto the parking garage, and are a warmer place to sleep than the nearby concrete sidewalks or the grass in Ballard Commons Park, a nearby park and plaza where homeless people also live.

According to library spokeswoman Laura Gentry, the new grate covers, which consist of steel plates pitched at a steep angle to the ground, are meant to “prevent people from placing items or sleeping on the grate due to the public safety risks involved.

“In particular,” Gentry continued, “the Library sought to prevent two regularly recurring incidents: 1) unsafe items, trash and human waste falling through the grate into the parking structure below and 2) the grate getting completely covered so that air could not flow through it, which creates serious safety hazards. Proper air flow is critical for fire safety, and is especially important during a pandemic.”

The sidewalks around the library, and the nearby park, have been a constant source of complaints by housed neighbors who argue that tents in the park are unsightly and that the people inside them pose a danger to children and others who use the park.

Two years ago, SPL took a similar action to deter people from congregating near the Ballard library, installing a series of bent metal pipes at a cost of $10,000 to serve a similar purpose. (At the time, library communications director Andra Addison said the purpose of the pipes was to address “unattended items left overnight in those areas, smoking, food and beverage waste, feces, urine and discarded needles” in response to neighborhood and patron complaints.)

Both installations are examples of “hostile architecture”—elements, such as the “anti-homeless spikes” some cities install on railings and benches, designed to prevent people from lingering in a space or using it for something other than its intended purpose, such as sleeping. In a 2019 photo essay, the New York Times described hostile architecture as “ways of saying ‘don’t make yourself at home’ in public.”

According to Gentry, “the Library has no additional plans to install similar elements at other libraries.”

2. After nearly an hour of public comment, much of it from residents arguing that needle-exchange programs encourage addiction by providing clean needles to injection drug users (an argument that makes about as much sense as claiming the availability of glassware encourages alcohol abuse), the Federal Way City Council voted Tuesday night to suspend a 10-year-old program that provides overdose-reversal drugs, counseling, and access to treatment in addition to clean needles.

As a needle exchange opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

The resolution, which refers to needle exchanges as “hypodermic needle giveaway programs,” extends a voluntary suspension of the program by King County Public Health give an 11-person committee time to meet and decide whether to allow the program to operate and, if so, under what conditions. “It is our collective belief that handing out needles in parking lots does not further the goal of treatment or helping those they serve,” the resolution says.

Hysteria over the program ramped up, according to reporting in the Federal Way Mirror, after a local woman did a “stakeout” of a needle exchange van operated by the South County Outreach Referral and Exchange (SCORE). The van responds to people who call the program requesting service. The woman said she requested, and received, 100 needles without turning any in—proving, at least to some residents who oppose the program, that the “exchange” program is really just a needle giveaway.

As an opponent put it during public comment, “If you give them needles, they’re gonna shoot up and they’re gonna die—it’s not the AIDS or all the other things that’s killing them, it’s the drugs.”

Needle exchange programs prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis and provide health-care workers an opportunity to meet with drug users who may be isolated and lack access to health care and other services. (It is beside the point that, as another anti-needle exchange speaker said last night, that “the thing with AIDS is that AIDS is treatable now, and hep C is curable.”)

Since the 1990s, needle exchanges have been common (and are no long especially controversial) in cities; the programs King County funds in Seattle also offers medical care including vaccinations, hepatitis and HIV testing, and abscess treatment in addition to clean needles and Narcan.

Back in 2016, a countywide task force recommended that the county work quickly to stand up two safe consumption sites for drug users, including one outside Seattle. Nearly five years later, the county and city have made no visible progress toward that goal; banning a longstanding needle exchange program marks a significant step in the opposite direction.

3. Last week, environmental and transit access groups were disappointed by the House’s proposed transportation package. This week, their disappointment continued when the Senate Transportation committee unveiled an even more conservative plan on Tuesday. While the House package dedicated just 25 percent to multimodal projects, the Senate allocates even less to that side of the ledger, with just 1.7 percent of the total going to multimodal projects.

The Senate Transportation committee unveiled its new transportation package, “Forward Washington,” at a work session Tuesday. The Senate’s package will generate $17.8 billion in tax revenue over the next 16 years, most of it coming from gas taxes, a new cap-and-trade program, and electric/hydrogen fuel cell vehicle tax, and state bonds.

Transportation accessibility groups and environmental groups say the plan is only a slight improvement over previous packages, like 2015’s roads-heavy “Connecting Washington,” and doesn’t advance the state’s transit infrastructure in a meaningful way

City leaders from around the state showed up to the session to support the package, including the mayor of Issaquah, Mary Lou Pauly; the package includes $500 million to widen SR 18 through the city.

Continue reading “Hostile Architecture at the Library, Needle Exchange Ban in Federal Way, and a Roads-Heavy Transpo Bil”

Jail Audit Finds Racial Disparities, Relationship Between Violence and Overcrowding

By Paul Kiefer

As the recent COVID-19 outbreak in King County jails subsides, a new report by the King County Auditor’s Office has highlighted an array of other concerns about safety and racial disparities in the county’s two adult detention facilities. Among the reasons for concern: Black and Indigenous women in King County jails spend more time in restrictive custody than the average for all female prisoners, and the death rate for inmates exceeds the national average.

The report, which auditor Kymber Waltmunson and her staff presented to the county council on Tuesday, recommended that the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention take steps to suicide-proof cells, expand psychiatric care for inmates, reduce the number of inmates per cell, and limit opportunities for jail staff to discriminate against Black and Indigenous inmates through housing assignments and behavioral sanctions, among other suggestions.

Inmates in King County jails die at a higher rate than the national average—in 2020, for instance, five inmates died in the county’s custody.

On some fronts, the auditor’s report showed signs of improvement at King County jails. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several county departments—including courts and the county prosecutor’s office—have collaborated to reduce the county’s day-to-day inmate population by tightening the criteria for detention.

The results are clear: in 2020, the county’s average daily inmate population fell from roughly 1,900 at the start of the year to roughly 1,300 by the year’s end. At the larger, higher-security jail in downtown Seattle, the declining inmate population allowed jail administrators to distribute the remaining inmates across now-empty cells.

According to the auditor, reducing the number of inmates sharing a cell spurred a dramatic drop in the number of fights and assaults in the downtown jail: While the facility’s population fell by 47 percent in 2020, violent incidents fell by roughly 63 percent.

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At the lower-security Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, the reduction in violence was less pronounced, and smaller than the decrease in the jail’s population. That facility, which holds fewer inmates than the downtown jail, holds fewer inmates and rarely places two people in the same cell—a practice known as “double-bunking.” As a result, and because of the types of inmates held in Kent, the facility sees far less violence in a typical year than the jail in downtown Seattle.

But Brooke Leary, the Law Enforcement Audit Manager for the county auditor’s office, cautioned the council that the decline in violence—including fights, attacks on inmates and attacks on staff—could reverse if the county abandons its pandemic-era efforts to reduce the inmate population, or if the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DADJ) follows through on King County Executive Dow Constantine’s plan to close down a floor of the downtown jail by 2022.

In their report, the county’s auditing team recommended that jail administrators work with prosecutors and courts to ensure that the inmate population continues to fall to avoid a future increase in “double-bunking” and an associated uptick in violence.

In his response to the recommendations, DADJ Director (and former Seattle police chief) John Diaz rebuffed the auditor’s suggestion that his department should prioritize providing each inmate their own cell. Continue reading “Jail Audit Finds Racial Disparities, Relationship Between Violence and Overcrowding”

Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule

King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones

1. King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht will fire a detective for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” before fatally shooting a car theft suspect near Enumclaw in 2019.

Detective George Alvarez is a 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office with a lengthy use-of-force record, including five shootings and a criminal charge for assaulting and threatening an informant in 2003. In November 2019, Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, driving in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, but when the detectives found him, he had parked next to a power station to smoke a cigarette. At the time, Johanknecht wrote, “there was no imminent risk” to members of the public.

Nevertheless, without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver’s-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the stolen SUV across the road and broke the driver’s-side window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.

In a letter to Alvarez explaining her decision, Johanknecht emphasized that she did not decide to fire him for the shooting itself, but for his decisions that led up to the shooting. “You did not use the opportunity you had to slow things down,” Johanknecht wrote. “The urgency here was created by your actions, not the actions of the suspect.” Johanknecht and other department leadership also called into question Alvarez’s claims that Chilcott posed an “immediate danger” to witnesses at a bus stop nearby. Instead, Johanknecht argued that Alvarez’s actions had placed bystanders—and Lerum—in danger by sparking an unnecessary confrontation with Chilcott.

For his part, Lerum received a written reprimand for not wearing his ballistic vest or clothing identifying himself as a law enforcement officer during the encounter.

In a press release on Thursday, King County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sergeant Tim Meyer drew a parallel between Chilcott’s death and the failed sting operation in 2017 during which plainclothes sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens on a residential street in Des Moines. King County agreed to pay a $2.25 million settlement to Dunlap-Gittens’ family in May 2020; however, according to Meyer, Alvarez is the first officer whom Johanknecht has fired for misuse of force or failure to de-escalate since taking office in 2017.

Cooper Offenbecker, an attorney representing Alvarez, told the Seattle Times that his client intends to appeal Johanknecht’s decision.

According to Rachel Schulkin, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office, the city “will not immediately resume issuing citations starting April 1 and will instead have a grace period in which we remind the public about the parking rules.”

2. In a media availability this week, new King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones said they intended to “allow for regional variations” in how various parts of King County respond to homelessness, giving the example of a “mega-shelter in Black Diamond” as something that “would not make sense” as part of a regional response. “I don’t see this job as being about running roughshod or issuing policy fiats; it will be about building things together,” they said.

However, Dones added, they are not interested in promoting the narrative that Seattle is somehow producing homelessness or generating the region’s homeless population; cities are natural “draws” for people experiencing homelessness in nearby areas, they said and “there is a natural pull to where there are services. We see this in jurisdictions across the country—people go where they think they can get the help they need.” Continue reading “Afternoon Fizz: Sheriff Fires Deputy, New Director Lays Out Plans for Homelessness Authority, City Reinstates 72-Hour Parking Rule”

Legislation Eliminates One Objection to Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Reform

Image by SeattleDude via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

Legislation that would make it easier for Sound Transit to adopt a fare enforcement system that does not involve the court or criminal justice system is coasting through the state senate after passing the house on a near-unanimous bipartisan vote.

House Bill 1301, originally sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Seattle), gives Sound Transit the authority to create an “alternative fare enforcement system” that could include resolutions other than fines for people who fail to pay their fare. The state senate transportation committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to move the bill to the rules committee, the final step before a floor vote.

Sound Transit director Peter Rogoff and some Sound Transit board members have resisted reforming the agency’s fare enforcement procedures, arguing that removing penalties—which include steep fines that, if unpaid, can lead to criminal charges—would lead to revenue shortfalls as people simply stop paying fares. And although the agency has instituted some reforms in the wake of the pandemic, negative press, and data showing that fare enforcement disproportionately impacts Black riders, the changes it has made so far fall far short of King County Metro’s proactive approach, which focuses more on harm reduction and access than punishment and fines.

“There’s a law-and-order mentality that’s more pervasive in Sound Transit than at Metro, both among agency staff and the board.”—Transit Riders Union general secretary Katie Wilson

Advocates, who have pointed to King County Metro’s far-reaching fare reforms as a local best practice, have long been skeptical of the claim that Sound Transit is powerless to keep fare enforcement out of the court system, but say they’re happy to see the issue resolved beyond any doubt.

“They [Sound Transit] kept insisting that they couldn’t do what Metro was doing [to decriminalize fare nonpayment], and one of the excuses they started giving us was they were bound by Sound Transit’s authorizing legislation to use the court system for citations,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. “So that’s what this legislation takes care of.” Continue reading “Legislation Eliminates One Objection to Sound Transit Fare Enforcement Reform”

“Every Community Should be Using FEMA Dollars” for Hotel-Based Shelter. So Why Isn’t Seattle?

Andreanecia Morris, executive director, HousingNOLA

By Erica C. Barnett

JustCARE, the pioneering program that has moved about 130 high-needs people off the streets in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown/International District and into hotels, got a reprieve from King County this week that will allow it to continue operating through June. According to King County Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) spokeswoman Sherry Hamilton, the county will provide $5 million for JustCARE and a smaller program run by the Public Defender Association, Co-LEAD Burien.

PDA director Lisa Daugaard says the “survival funding” from the county will allow JustCARE to “retain some of our existing rooms, and [let] us use a hotel the County has leased to replace some others.” But, she said, “the real impact of the JustCARE model is that we keep making new hotel placements for people still on the streets” in Pioneer Square and the CID. “Our ability to make new hotel placements has been paused for two months, and the current County rescue package will provide very little room to place new people.”

As one panelist from California noted, “to my knowledge, we have not seen any FEMA reimbursement requests [for hotel shelter costs] denied.”

Local advocates and city council members have asked the mayor to open hotels to unsheltered people who are at risk to COVID infection due to age or underlying health conditions, such as addiction, using federal FEMA dollars that are set aside for this purpose. Durkan and her budget office have responded by providing long lists of objections to the idea, and by arguing that FEMA does not pay for any kind of “services” at the hotels it does fund—only the cost of basic room and board.

As PubliCola has reported, this is not the experience of other cities that have used FEMA funding for hotel-based shelters and services; FEMA does not fund non-shelter services such as individual case management or counseling, but it does fund the costs of running a shelter, such as shelter staff. Cities across California, an early adopter of the hotel-based shelter model, have received reimbursement for the vast majority of services they provide to the thousands of formerly unsheltered people who have been staying in hotels since the pandemic began.

On Tuesday, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition held a panel discussion that provided important national perspective on Seattle’s reluctance to fund any hotels using FEMA-reimbursable dollars. From New Orleans to California, the common theme was that the process of seeking FEMA reimbursement (which was at the heart of many of Durkan’s objections) was well worth the lives that were undoubtedly saved by bringing people indoors. And, as one panelist from California noted, “to my knowledge, we have not seen any FEMA reimbursement requests [for hotel shelter costs] denied.”

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Ann Oliva, a former HUD staffer who is now a fellow at the Center on Budget and Police Priorities, said that “every community should be using their FEMA dollars to support … a non-congregate sheltering approach”—and seeking additional federal money to pay for the small percentage of services that FEMA won’t pay for. “What’s important for you all to think about,” she told the local leaders and service providers on the call, “is how you can us either CARES Act [dollars] or these new resources coming thru the [American Rescue Plan Act that was announced last week to ensure that you have the money you need” to fund supportive services such as case management. Continue reading ““Every Community Should be Using FEMA Dollars” for Hotel-Based Shelter. So Why Isn’t Seattle?”

Fizz: Homeless Authority Tries Again, Election Update, and a Double Standard on FEMA Funding?

Local government loves a flow chart. This one outlines the process for hiring a director for the county homelessness authority.

1. In a process that remains opaque to the public, the implementation board for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, which includes advocates and representatives of local organizations and people with lived experience of homelessness, voted unanimously to hire New York City-based consultant Marc Dones as head of the authority. 

The decision came after a meandering discussion last week about how to move forward after the hiring committee’s first pick, Regina Cannon from C4 Innovations, turned down the position. Dones, who led the process that resulted in the authority’s current structure, was the second runner-up.

Although Cannon did not, as some on the board had suggested she might, appear before the board to explain why she didn’t take the job, she did talk to individual board members. Harold Odom, a Lived Experience Coalition member who was also on the hiring committee (which otherwise consisted mostly of representatives from Seattle, King County, and suburban cities), said Cannon told him the new CEO would need to be committed to “building community” by finding common ground among all parts of the region, and would need to have some experience with housing, not just homeless services.

To read between the lines: One issue Cannon reportedly raised when declining to take the job was that the region is extremely balkanized between Seattle and its suburbs, which often disagree with the city’s (and King County’s) approach to homelessness. This, arguably, is the problem underlying this entire project. The biggest challenge for the agency, as it always has been, will be crafting a united regional approach to homelessness that incorporates the views and preferences of the suburbs and unincorporated King County as well as Seattle. Whether this is even possible remains an open question.

Dones has not said publicly whether they will take the position, but it seems unlikely that the board would have voted unanimously to hire him without having some inkling of whether he would accept.

2. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has raised numerous logistical objections to requests that the city open hotel-based shelters for vulnerable unsheltered people as part of its pandemic response, claiming, among other objections, that FEMA’S documentation requirements are “onerous” and that FEMA does not provide reimbursement for any human services. As turns out, the Durkan administration did seek FEMA reimbursement for a hotel last year—one that sat mostly empty while thousands of people slept in tents or in overcrowded shelters in the early days of the pandemic.

Nonetheless, the city persisted in seeking full reimbursement for the entire, mostly empty hotel.

The hotel was the Executive Pacific Hotel downtown, and it was supposed to serve as temporary housing for first responders who needed a safe place to isolate while they helped respond to the pandemic. Instead of renting individual rooms as needed, the city leased the entire hotel—155 rooms, every night, for three months. When only 17 people stayed in the hotel, total, during the first month of the lease (averaging nine days per stay), the city expanded eligibility to other kinds of essential workers, which added another handful of previously ineligible guests.

At the time, it seemed possible that FEMA would only pay for about $325,000 of the cost of the hotel because it was mostly unused. Nonetheless, the city persisted in seeking full reimbursement for the entire, mostly empty hotel. According to a spokesperson for the city’s department of Finance and Administrative Services, the city has submitted a request for $1,931,060, “and we are awaiting approval.”

The Executive Pacific will also be the site of a hotel-based shelter the city plans to open late this month using money from a federal Emergency Solutions Grant. In the seven months after the Executive Pacific’s initial $2 million, three-month contract ran out, according to FAS, the city spent $12,641 on rooms in the same hotel—a quarter of one percent of the monthly cost.

3. This is the current list of declared candidates for mayor and city council, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, but the final list will almost certainly include many additional names. Those could include former council member Bruce Harrell (perpetually said to be announcing soon), onetime mayoral candidate and former state legislator Jessyn Farrell (ditto), and Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller.

New names of note on this list include both viable candidates— activist and attorney Nikkita Oliver, who ran for mayor in 2017 and just joined the race to fill citywide position 9, being vacated by Lorena González—as well as those that merit the adjective “perennial,” such Nazi-saluting public commenter Alex Tsimerman, who has been repeatedly banned for city hall for disrupting council meetings.

Not yet on the city’s list, but certainly approaching perennial status, is North Seattle activist Kate Martin, who has registered to run for Position 8, held by Teresa Mosqueda—twice. She has also registered to run for mayor.

Martin has run for local office twice before, in 2013 and 2019. (In 2016, she ran an unsuccessful but well-funded initiative to build an elevated park next to the remains of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.) Tsimerman has run for local office in every election year since 2015.

Seattle Rejects Biden Administration Offer to Pay Full Cost of Hotels Used as Shelter

By Erica C. Barnett

As funding runs out for JustCARE, a program that has moved more than 100 very high-needs people from tent encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District into hotels where they receive case management and services, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has made it clear that it considers one source of funding off the table: Money from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which recently announced it would pay 100 percent of the cost for eligible hotel-based shelters.

“While we appreciate the work of President Biden’s administration,” city budget director Ben Noble and Office of Emergency Management director Curry Mayer wrote in a memo to council members this week, “there continues to be no option to receive 100% reimbursement of the operation and services of non-congregate shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness in King County or Washington.” In other words: The city is grateful that the new administration is offering to pay for hotels; they just don’t consider it a viable option for Seattle.

Advocates for JustCARE, which serves unsheltered people with disabling behavioral health conditions, have been arguing for months that the city should seek FEMA reimbursement for the program, whose funding from King County runs out March 15. Without funding, the program will need to “exit” 124 substance-addicted people, most of them with disabling mental health conditions, onto city streets, at a time when both homeless advocates and business boosters agree that there are an unacceptable number of tents on sidewalks and in parks around the city. 

“Given the state of downtown, regardless of your opinion and how you characterize the root causes or anything else, we cannot have 124 more individuals who are suffering from meth addiction and mental health conditions leaving hotels where they are currently getting their needs met.”—Councilmember Andrew Lewis

The program, which is a partnership between the Public Defender Association, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, REACH, and the Chief Seattle Club, among other groups, provides non-congregate shelter options now that the COVID pandemic has reduced capacity in congregate shelters.

“Given the state of downtown, regardless of your opinion and how you characterize the root causes or anything else, we cannot have 124 more individuals who are suffering from meth addiction and mental health conditions leaving hotels where they are currently getting their needs met” and going back onto downtown streets, Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who represents the center city, said earlier this week.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

Under the Trump Administration, FEMA reimbursed jurisdictions 75 percent of the cost of COVID-related expenditures, including shelter; once President Biden took office, however, that number increased to 100 percent, retroactive to January 2020, prompting cities across the country to take advantage of the new, more generous reimbursement opportunity. Shelter advocates were urging the city to fund shelter now and seek reimbursement later even when the feds were only funding 75 percent of the cost; It’s critical, they argue, not to leave any resources on the table.

“It seems clear the Biden administration is sending a signal to use FEMA; if we qualify, we just have to do the work and go through the steps,” PDA director Lisa Daugaard said. “We are willing.”

Other cities began renting hotels on the presumption of future reimbursement shortly after the pandemic began. San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, have used FEMA dollars to pay for thousands of hotel rooms funded through Project Roomkey, California’s effort to bring people experiencing homelessness indoors. When the Biden administration announced the costs for efforts like Project Roomkey would be completely reimbursed by FEMA, local officials in LA called it “manna from heaven.” Continue reading “Seattle Rejects Biden Administration Offer to Pay Full Cost of Hotels Used as Shelter”

Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority

Image via Wikimedia Commons

1. On Tuesday, the Mercer Island City Council is scheduled to vote on a proposal to ban all “camping” in the city, including sleeping unsheltered in public places and sheltering in a vehicle overnight. People who violate the ban—anyone who remains unsheltered in the city overnight—could be jailed for up to 90 days and fined $1,000 for each violation. Any vehicle that is used for overnight shelter, including RVs, could be impounded.

At a Mercer Island City Council meeting last month, Councilmember Jake Jacobson said the proposed ordinance “addresses public safety concerns [about] people who, but for this ordinance, would be staying in public properties for an infinite period of time and certainly are in a position to be of concern to people on the island. Fear—there is fear out there, and this is a way to deal with it.”

“And if people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,'” Jacobson continued, “then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

A federal appeals court ruling, Martin v. Boise, bars cities from passing outright bans on homelessness. Instead, it allows cities to ban sleeping outdoors unless there is no “available” shelter in the area—but the definition of “available” and in the area are very much open to interpretation.

The Mercer Island proposal gets around Boise by saying that police who encounter unsheltered people may direct them to shelter outside Mercer Island but on the Eastside, since Mercer Island does not have any homeless shelters. In practice, this means one of four shelters—one for women, one for men, one for families with children, and one for youth. In exchange for these services, Mercer Island would pay a consortium of Eastside service providers a total of $10,000 a year.

The bill defines “available” broadly, allowing police to enforce the law against people who can’t be admitted to their designated shelter because of the “voluntary actions of that person,” including :intoxication, drug use, unruly and/or assaultive behavior and like behaviors.” Under proposed ordinance, for example, if a homeless man was ineligible for the lone men’s shelter because he was exhibiting behavioral health symptoms that made him “unruly,” he could be seen as refusing shelter and jailed.

If people say they don’t want help and say, ‘I’m not going into shelter,’ then they have made a decision to opt into the justice system.”

Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes assured the council that then police were interested in helping homeless people, not further marginalizing them. “Rest assured… we won’t take enforcement action until there’s repeated issues,” he said. But Sergeant Mike Seifer, who presented the legislation to the council, noted that it was aimed at addressing a specific group of people—”about four individuals that we deal with on a very serious or consistent basis” in public spaces, plus “about six or seven that are in vehicles that are consistently coming into contact with the officers.”

One way or another, the law would allow Mercer Island police to remove those ten or so people from the island, either by jailing them in another city, such as Issaquah, or by sending them to a shelter off the island. Councilmember Craig Reynolds, who cast the lone “no” vote against the ordinance on first reading, noted that the city’s jail contracts don’t come cheap—jailing a person costs the city about $200 a day, or up to $18,000 for the maximum 90-day sentence.

2. King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci  will replace her fellow Councilmember Reagan Dunn on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s governing board, as we reported exclusively on Twitter Friday.

In January, as PubliCola reported, governing board member Zaneta Reid took Dunn to task for positions he has taken on homelessness, including his opposition to the “Health Through Housing” sales tax proposal and his efforts to fund one-way bus tickets out of King County. “Mr. Dunn—Reagan—I have not seen one article that you have been compassionate or even cared about what we’re sitting at this table doing.  … How can I trust that you have the best interests of those that we are serving at forefront?” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan shut down the conversation before Dunn could answer. Continue reading “Mercer Island Plans Homeless Ban, Shakeup at Homelessness Authority”

Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance

Source: King County rapid rehousing dashboard

By Erica C. Barnett

Sometime in the next few months, the city of Seattle plans to open up to three new hotel-based shelters in the city, with a total of about 300 rooms, for clients of three homeless service providers—Catholic Community Services, Chief Seattle Club, and the Public Defender Association.

The goal of this streets-to-housing program, announced last year, is to move people quickly from unsheltered homelessness into permanent housing, using diversion (programs that keep people out of the homeless system, such as bus passes to reconnect with family out of state), permanent supportive housing (service-rich housing for people who can’t live independently) and rapid rehousing, a form of short-term rental subsidy that has become the solution of first resort for people who don’t need the highest level of care but who have run through all their housing options. The rapid rehousing portion of the program is supposed to move more than 230 people from unsheltered homelessness to market-rate housing.

Originally, the city said the hotels would open at the beginning of January and operate for 10 months, but that deadline has been pushed back and the exact date each of the hotels will open is now unknown. The federal Emergency Services Grant that will fund the hotels expires at the end of this year.

City officials, pointing to statistics that show low rates of returns to homelessness among people who use rapid rehousing funds, call rapid rehousing a phenomenal success. Others, including many advocates and service providers, caution that rapid rehousing only works for people who are already resourceful, and fails to address the underlying conditions that cause many people to fall into homelessness and get stuck.

Rapid rehousing is a relatively new approach to homelessness, one that’s based on the notion that most people experiencing homelessness just need a temporary financial boost to achieve self-sufficiency.

Under rapid rehousing, nonprofit homeless service agencies connect clients to available market-rate housing units and pay a portion of their rent for several months. During that time, the agency provides case management to help clients increase their income. Once a client is paying 60 percent of their income on rent, or after a maximum of 12 months, the subsidy runs out and the client is responsible for paying full rent their own. Because the rent subsidies are temporary and decrease over time, rapid rehousing is much less expensive than other options cities like Seattle favored in the past, like transitional housing.

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City officials praise rapid rehousing programs for their apparent high success rates. For example, Kamaria Hightower, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, cited King County statistics showing that just 16 percent of households in rapid rehousing program returned to homelessness within two years. “This figure demonstrates that the program is successful in keeping people housed for long-periods of time,” Hightower said. “This is a promising trend we expect to see in this new [hotel-to-housing] program.”

But critics say the statistics supporting rapid rehousing are flawed, because they only include program participants who actually found housing; because they don’t track people longer than two years (about one year after the maximum length of a subsidy); and because the “return to homelessness” numbers only include people who re-entered the formal homeless service system in their community within a year, a number that excludes every person who returned to homelessness but didn’t seek out services within the same community.

These numbers are significant. According to King County’s rapid rehousing dashboard, only half of all people (52 percent) who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with. (For single adults, the move-in rate was only 45 percent). And although it’s hard to say how many rapid rehousing enrollees became homeless without re-entering the formal homeless system, the most recent “point in time” count of people experiencing homeless found that about 10 percent of homeless people surveyed said they don’t use any homeless services.

People who are not “literally homeless,” including those who couch surf or crash at friends’ and relatives’ houses, wouldn’t show up in the official numbers either. Nor would people who avail themselves of what Seattle and King County’s new rapid rehousing guidelines, adopted in February 2020, refer to as “innovative housing options including roommates, or shared housing with family or friends”—as if sharing an apartment with other families or crashing at a friend’s house is a new and unique opportunity, not an option people choose when they have no other options.

Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) says LIHI’s tiny house villages “always have people who say they refused to even consider [rapid rehousing] because of bad experiences or they’ve heard about friends who tried it and had a bad experience. “Every year we have people end up in tiny house villages who ‘flunk’ out of rapid rehousing, so they end up homeless again,” Lee said.

People who “flunk” out of rapid rehousing do so mostly because they can’t pay their rent, a predictable outcome in a city where a two-bedroom apartment costs $1,700 a month (and that’s after rents dropped dramatically nationwide). Rapid rehousing supporters, including Barb Poppe, the consultant whose 2016 report arguably contributed to Seattle’s embrace of the short-term subsidies, have pointed to cities like Houston and Phoenix as models for success. However, they often fail to acknowledge that it’s much easier to house people in cities where that same two-bedroom costs just $1,100 a month.

Only half of all people who entered rapid rehousing accessed housing through the program; the “success” rate erases all of those people because they never found housing to begin with.

“Given our housing market here, I’m not sure that [rapid rehousing] is a smart solution,” City Council member Tammy Morales said late last year, when the council was still debating Durkan’s hotel-to-housing proposal. “To provide housing for a month, or three months, without providing the additional support they need to stay in that housing seems counterproductive and potentially harmful.”

Derrick Belgarde, deputy director of the Chief Seattle Club, says CSC’s rapid rehousing success has resulted from choosing people who are most likely to do well in the program, which doesn’t mean the most vulnerable clients. “The average people we serve usually have a lot of problems,” Belgrade said. “A better candidate is somebody who’s probably more functional, who may have a part-time job—all they’re lacking is the resources to pay $2,500 or $3,000 to get into a place.”

Salina Whitfield is, in many ways, a quintessential rapid rehousing success story. After fleeing an abusive relationship in 2017, she moved back to Seattle with her two kids in 2019, living in shelters and temporary housing until she found an apartment through InterIm Community Development’s rehousing program last year. At the time, Whitfield was working as a temp for a radiology company in Seattle making enough to start paying her rent, at a subsidized unit owned by LIHI, without assistance.

Then COVID-19 hit, and the bottom fell out. Whitfield lost her job, and faced a long wait for unemployment. Fortunately, she was still eligible for rapid rehousing, which paid the rent she owed for November and December. “I just linked back up with them [around] Christmas Eve,” she said. “They helped me pay catch-up until I could get my unemployment for February. … I’m ecstatic because I’m good until February.”

Whitfield is happy with the program, but added that she couldn’t make it work without a subsidized unit. When she was living with her two kids at a family shelter in Auburn, she said, the agency wanted her to move into an apartment that would have cost her $1,500 a month—far more than she could afford on her $18-an-hour income. “I was like, ‘You guys are setting me up for failure,’ because I had friends who went to rapid rehousing” who had to move out once their subsidies expired, she said. “Now my rent is $1,185 a month, which is unheard-of in Seattle for a two-bedroom, and it doesn’t change,” she said. “I just feel lucky all around.”

Homeless service providers, including those who help clients with rapid rehousing vouchers, say that rapid rehousing works for a specific subset of people—those, like Whitfield, who are between jobs or have only recently fallen into homelessness.

“It’s great for those it’s great for, and that’s not a huge subset of those DESC works to serve,” said Noah Fay, director of housing programs at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides low-barrier shelter and housing to people experiencing homelessness. “For people who are just down on their luck or need some short-term support, I think [rapid rehousing] makes total sense.”

But for DESC’s clients, who range from very low-income workers to people with complex mental health and addiction issues, a short-term subsidy often makes little sense. In many cases, Fay said, clients who qualify for rapid rehousing turn it down. “What we’ve seen is that high-needs people who aren’t able to find sufficient income have ended up returning to homelessness. Having housing and losing housing is inherently quite traumatic, and I think people are aware of that and conscious of that fact.”

The process of getting enrolled in rapid rehousing begins when a person enters the homeless system, through a process known as Coordinated Entry for All. Every person looking for housing must take a survey designed to gauge their overall “vulnerability,” based on factors such as domestic violence, drug use, and whether they owe money to anyone, among other intensely personal topics.

The vulnerability ranking tool, called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), is used to rank clients for housing and other services. Clients who score high enough to qualify for housing get matched to apartments through a separate process called case conferencing, in which case managers make the case that their client, rather than someone else’s, is the best fit for a particular housing unit.

This process, which puts those hardest hit by homelessness first in line for short-term subsidy, can result in a mismatch between households that qualify for rapid rehousing and those that can actually make it work long-term. Often, providers say, people who initially express an interest in rapid rehousing back out when they see what a unit would cost or how long the subsidy is supposed to last.

“I appreciate the sentiment that we should be prioritizing our region’s most vulnerable,” Fay, from DESC, said. “However, we need to match the needs to the housing, and in my experience, rapid rehousing doesn’t meet the needs” of the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness. Continue reading “Seattle’s Big Push to Reduce Homelessness After COVID Relies on Self-Reliance”